Merrill Mael: A major voice in radio

VICTOR STREDICKE – February 16, 1989 -Merrill Mael, who began his career in 1939 at a Seattle radio station named KEEN, today describes himself as the oldest announcer in Seattle radio. His voice has been heard on commercials for dozens of major Seattle firms, and is heard today on commercials for Thornberg Construction
His 50-year career includes a long list of audio milestones. Back then, KOMO and KJR were operated from the same control panel. With a flip of a switch, Mael would be an announcer for KJR, or KOMO, or, for that matter, NBC.
An early broadcast experience was to announce Vice President Henry A. Wallace’s news conference, live to the nation, after the veep’s tour of the Orient.
By 1941 Mael was a network announcer, working for NBC in San Francisco, and then at the Blue Network in Hollywood. He was the announcer on the network variety shows “Maxwell House Coffee Time” and “Breakfast at Sardi’s,” and had character parts in “Vic & Sade,” “Doctor Kate” and “Pacific Story.”
By the 1950s he had held every management position in broadcasting, “some more than once,” and flirted with radio ownership in Puyallup and Anchorage.
“Frankly, we barely made wages,” he said.
But times were changing. Announcers became disc jockeys. And Mael proudly recalls that he ran a No. 1-rated music station “without ever playing a rock-‘n’-roll song.”
Ben Fisher, an early manager of KOMO, and Homer Pope, who split for a marathon stint at KJR, were the two men most responsible for building an environment for good radio “that has lasted through today,” Mael said.
“If you had worked for KOMO, you could get a job anywhere,” Mael said.
By 1963 radio had clearly passed him by, and more of his work was in television.
Primitive was the word for Alaska television. Mael managed a one-camera TV station. He described a system that mystified the competition, using an image generator called an Opticon. “We would trace the outline of a loaf of bread on the camera lens, pan to the Opticon stage where the bread was. The camera could be moved while the Opticon held the image until the bread burned.”
In 1967 he and Dick Stokke appeared in daylong stock-market telecasts on Channel 13 – thrifty innovations there included the use of fixed-position cameras.
Stock reports led to a securities-trading license; Mael’s “official occupation” at this time is independent international financial consultant.
He’s building up enough nerve to get new plastic knees, so he can discard his crutches. He sports a mustache that reinforces one of his dialects as a British butler.
Steve Lawson, head of the production house that bears his name, admires Mael’s work.
“I used Merrill as Santa Claus in commercials that ran as far away as Montana,” Lawson said. “He does accents, characters, has inflections. He can trim five or 10 seconds from a spot without sounding speeded-up.”
Mael said announcing styles appear to run in cycles. For years, everybody wanted John Bartholomew Tucker. Or Orson Welles. Now they want Bernard Hughes or Wilford Brimley.
“I’ve got Wilford down pat. I’m working on Bernard.”
But contemporary radio programming doesn’t impress Mael: “It’s a bunch of people playing recorded noise and talkin’ dirty.”
Nevertheless, there are some bests. The best announcer, Mael feels, is Bill Yeend, news host at KIRO. “He fits the KIRO mold; Jim French, too. He’s still great.
“Seattle’s best disc jockey is Ichabod Caine, mornings at KMPS-AM-FM. He does a good job and he does it with class,” Mael said.

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Author: Victor Stredicke

Former radio columnist for the Seattle Times (1964-1989). --- View other articles by Victor Stredicke

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